From Tribal Politics to Power Sharing. A Time of Change.

by Carol Horner

It was an exciting time when helicopters hovered over Stormont on the 8th May 2007. I have to admit to my cynicism about the hope for real future change.  Thoughts like -Oh here we go again! – How long will it last this time? – were in my mind. However when the media showed the key players, Ian Paisley (First Minister) Martin McGuinness  (Deputy First Minister) Blair and Ahern, along with Peter Hain (Secretary of State) sitting together in an informal setting, sharing tea and jokes, after the swearing in of the Northern Ireland Executive, I felt a real shift. This time it was going to be different. There was a sense that these two Ministers were genuinely going to try and build peace and work together for the sake of the diverse communities they represent.

What follows are my personal ponderings and reflections, which, at this time, are only in an embryonic state. I am a psychotherapist living and working in Northern Ireland and I am intrigued and curious about the journey the First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, have embarked upon. They are charged with forming a Northern Ireland Executive and leading the new power sharing initiative. This marks an extraordinary change in the way these two ex-warriors are now communicating. Peter Hain said “Only a short while before this time they never passed a word between each other – even walking down the corridor at Stormont, the DUP would not acknowledge a republican.”  The sight of the two veterans, Protestant patriarch and iconic republican, standing shoulder to shoulder to vow that they will leave the past behind, has been described as the closest thing to a miracle that Belfast has ever seen. It flew in the face of all history and experience to date.  These two men now publicly promised to run a government together for the benefit of all its people. This seems to me to be more a dawning of a new level of consciousness in our land than a miracle.

As psychotherapists change is our business. My discussion will focus on two main areas and the relationship between them.: the model of communication these two men, their political parties and the communities they represented shared, for almost 30 years, and the change in consciousness, which may have contributed to the shift of opposites, and intransigence, leading to a new way of relating, based on mutual respect, commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

The TA Drama triangle as described by Stephen Karpman is a psychological and social model of human interaction in Transactional Analysis. This model provides me with some insight about the nature of the communication and interplay between these two men and the parties they represented.. The communication was essentially two different dialogues that were closed, cyclical, uncompromising and travelling on parallel lines. Karpman describes three habitual roles (games), which people can take in certain situations in the triangle. There is the person who is treated as, or accepts the role of victim; the persecutor who pressures, or coerces the victim; and the rescuer who intervenes, out of an apparent wish to help the situation of the underdog or victim. Such games are designed for the purpose of supporting an original position and they are part of a person’s life script. In this game, roles can switch very quickly. They often did during the last 30 years.

Who were the victims? Those who lost their lives or were maimed and disabled? Their families? The two generations or more of children growing up in unsafe and fearful communities – many of who now suffer mental health issues, including a dramatic increase in suicide? The witnesses to bombings, killings, riots and violence? The people who feel they have been oppressed?

Who were the persecutors?  The paramilitary groups? The many young men living in the heart of the trouble spots, recruited and seduced into fighting for the cause by the rhetoric of men like the Paisley and McGuinness? The security forces, the British, the IRA and the paramilitaries have all been described as persecutors. Things become blurred here in the triangle as all the above persecutors have also been described as victims.

The Rescuers part in this triangle is to help the situation. They can either take the “fixer” position saying, “ If you would just be sensible and do as I say this could all get sorted out”. Or they can become the bullies – “if you don’t do this we will …” When the victim does not respond in the desired way the rescuer can experience this as persecution. The IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP, Sinn Fein, The British, Irish and US Governments have all been seen as rescuers by different audiences. They have also been seen as Persecutors.

There are endless combinations of relationships in this triangle but the point is that they all lead to dead ends. The actors remain defensive and trapped, unwilling or unable to listen to the other. There is no way out and the old well-rehearsed scripts just keep getting repeated. Our two main players regularly sent out their messages (albeit from different perspectives) that there would be no compromise, no sell-out, and no surrender. Ian Paisley, “Dr NO “ as he was known, was the Protestant die-hard whose most frequently used word during the previous 30 years must have been NO. Martin McGuinness, an alleged ex-IRA commander, said in 1985 “Our position is very clear and we will never change. War against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.” It was clear that both men (and the parties and communities they represented) felt it vital to keep repeating the old scripts, messages and patterns. That was their business. It was inconceivable to think of changing the script. For without it their world would no longer make sense.

In our work as humanistic psychotherapists we know that the way out of such an impasse is to learn to be less defensive and to move away from the roles or masks we have learnt to live behind. In this new space we can learn to relate both to ourselves, and others, in more compassionate and creative ways. This involves difficult self searching, often leading to personal growth and the courage to take personal responsibility and make new choices. It opens up the possibility for different way ways of communicating, which involve listening, empathy, openness and mutual respect. It seems to me that Paisley and McGuinness have moved out of their old triangle and their journey is now one which reflects some of the changes that just been outlined in the previous paragraph.

Karpman says that the basic concept underpinning the Drama triangle is the connection between power and responsibility and their relationship to boundaries. The triangle is dysfunctional and within it there are often abuses of power, pain, humiliation, and hidden agendas. The triangle by its very definition is a rigid structure. In order to move into a space where responsibility and power can be transparent, open and accountable, the boundaries need to be loosened. In that very transaction, the triangle becomes something else.

I am interested in the process involved in moving out of a triangle into a new way of relating. Ken Wilbur’s work on boundaries provides insight into this area. It shows how we can artificially split our awareness into compartments. We do this by persistent alienation from ourselves, others and the world, by fracturing out present experience into different parts, separated by boundaries. The world of opposites is a world of conflicts, as every boundary lines is also a potential battle line. The firmer one’s boundaries, the more entrenched are the battles. We tend to treat the boundary as real, and then manipulate the opposites created by the boundary, reminiscent of the victim, persecutors, and rescuer roles in the Triangle.

The world would be a very different place if we could eradicate the negative and unwanted poles of the pairs of opposites. Von Bertalanffy, the bio-physicist, describes this as the “complimentary aspects of one and the same reality”. Wilbur says this unity of opposites is clearly obvious in the Gestalt theory of perception. He suggests the solution to the war of opposites requires the surrender (not a good word in the Northern Irish context!)  of all boundaries instead of the juggling of opposites against each other. The war of opposites is a symptom of a boundary taken to be real. To cure the symptom we must go to the root of the matter itself – our illusory boundaries. He further suggests that when the opposites are realised to be one, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies become lovers. We are then in a position to make friends with our entire universe and not just half of it.

I am not suggesting that we are at that place – far from it – but we seem to have crossed a line. It seems there has been a shift from the world of Mental Ego development, as described by Wilbur, through the biosocial bands, which require radical questioning of our status quo, to the Centaur or Humanistic area of personal growth. During the last twenty years there has been a huge growth in awareness –raising through Community Relations, Cross community and Conflict Resolution projects throughout the North. These have undertaken valuable and effective work with many organisations, groups and individuals. Added to this were the International and media interest in, and commentary on, the Northern Ireland stage and impasse.  In addition many politicians, ex-prisoner groups, community representatives and an assortment of “Rescuers” have visited South Africa and studied their peace and truth telling process. So over the years the possibilities of loosening the boundaries was becoming more apparent to our society.

But why did it take 30 years of violence, and over 3350 deaths, for this to become a reality? A brief summary of some events during that time may help to answer this question. It certainly highlights that there were many attempts to find a political solution during these years,  and also many obstacles to block that process.

1968 The Troubles grew from the Civil Rights Demonstrations against the inequalities and injustices of the times. Following this a terrorist campaign or war developed
1973 The Sunningdale Agreement, based on many similar principles to the later Good Friday Agreement, fell on stony ground
1993 December – The Downing Street Declaration. John Major and Albert Reynolds presented a plan for peace that argued for self-determination on the basis of consensus of all the people of Ireland. The DUP rejected it out of hand.
1994 IRA announced a cease-fire. This came about after confidential meetings between the IRA and British Government and support for theDowning Street Declaration.
1998 April – After multi-party negotiations, the Belfast Agreement presented to the countryJune – David Trimble, Unionist leader, elected as First Minister designateAugust – The IRA Omagh Bombing killed 29 people
1999 December – Devolved government returned after 27 years of rule from London
2000 February – London suspended the assembly after IRA failure to disarmMay – IRA said it would store weapons. Power restored back to Assembly
2001 Trimble resigned over IRA’s failure to disarm
2002 October – Police raided Sinn Fein’s Stormont offices due to alleged spy ring. Power sharing suspended after the arrest of Sinn Fein’s Head of Administration
2003 October – Trimble declared he could not deliver his end of the deal due to lack of transparency in IRA’s disarmament processNovember – The DUP emerged as largest party in Assembly electionsPaisley stated he would not sit in Government until IRA disarmed
2004 June – Blair and Ahern set the September deadline to end impasseDecember – talks ground to a halt
2005 April – Sinn Fein calls on IRA to end armed campaign after a series of high profile crimesJuly – IRA ordered its members to dump armsSeptember – Independent witnesses confirmed IRA had disarmedDecember – Dennis Donaldson confessed to being a British spy
2006 April – Dennis Donaldson murdered Blair and Ahern launched talks for reviving self rule
2007 January – Sinn Fein declared its support to the Protestant dominant Police ServiceMarch – Paisley and Adams held their first face-to-face meetingsMay 8th – Power sharing deal sworn in and the 108 seat Assembly set up under the Good Friday Peace Agreement

Gerry Adams, in a recent interview with Nick Stadlen said “ We shouldn’t airbrush our history, so that we can make judgments in the objective conditions of that time. So even to start discussing the issue of peace, and what peace is, and how to get peace …in a time of daily conflict, with quite serious outrages on an ongoing basis … It’s understandable to me with hindsight why the issue of peace being raised and argued out would be seen as something just daft or silly or even treacherous, but it was and remains the right thing to have done.”

He was referring specifically to the Sunnigdale agreement in 1973 – just 5 years after the start of the Troubles. Another example of this was in 1998, when the powers that be, mainly the UK Government, Irish Government, US President, decided enough was enough. It was time bloodshed was replaced by partnership. They drew up the Belfast Agreement after multi-party talks. The DUP absented themselves from the process.

The history of the previous 30 years illustrates the importance of timing and readiness. The people who are going to be involved in the actualisation of the peace process need to be open to, and ready for, it. History has also shown how important it is to involve and include the extreme opposites in any way forward, rather then trying to fast track by wooing the middle ground. It took 9 years after the signing on the Belfast Agreement for it to be implemented. It was only after the 2003 elections when the DUP and Sinn Fein were given the mandate that it was apparent that these two parties needed, not only to be included, but also to be given prime positions to take the process forward.

There are interesting parallels here between the lessons of history and what we know about the process of change in our work as psychotherapists. Brandon Hamber, speaking at the Peace-building Post 2006 Workshop held in Dundalk makes a useful distinction between peace-making and peace-building. He outlines a definition of peacemaking as provided by Norbert Ropers  “Peacemaking is understood to mean the attempt to tackle some concrete problems, in a process which generally begins with a difference of interests, proceeds in the form of negotiations, and in the end, if successfully dealt with, leads to an agreement concerning the code of conduct of  both sides.” As described by Hamber  “peace-building is primarily interested in the ideas of building cultures of peace, reconciliation, attitudinal change, and altering the general political and social climate of the society over time…We cannot tie peace-building simply to the development of the so-called concrete makers of peace, such as the signing of agreements, or the cessation of hostility.” According to these definitions the peacemaking took a period of thirty years. We have now just embarked on the process of peace-building.

I can only marvel at the leadership shown by Paisley and McGuinness since May and the setting up of the New Executive. I sincerely hope that the First and Deputy First Ministers will continue to work effectively together in this peace-building process. Difficult issues may at times lure them back into that old triangle. Will they create just another drama triangle with a different and more sophisticated scripts for the roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer? Or is it really a new beginning, a new way of relating based on loosening of the boundaries and mutual respect?

I have faith in the process and the changing boundaries. Together a new society can be built, at ease with itself, where people share and enjoy the benefits of this new opportunity. No one ever said it was going to be easy.

Carol Horner comes from a social work background and worked for many years managing a range of family projects for a Criminal Justice Agency in the North. She now has a psychotherapy and stress management practice in Belfast.